Rory Sutherland Rory Sutherland

The key to happiness? Getting behind the wheel


A friend of mine recently visited a company in Europe which plans to manufacture human-carrying, pilotless drones. These would be capable of carrying a single passenger above the traffic at speeds of around 70 miles an hour.

‘What kind of onboard information would be conveyed to the passenger?’ he asked. Will they be told their airspeed, altitude or location… that kind of thing?’

Even today, 38 years after I passed my driving test, few things give me as much joy as a well-executed parallel park

‘Nothing whatsoever,’ he was told. ‘There is no need. The entire journey is pre-programmed, and there is no need for the passenger to know what is going on, since they are powerless to intervene.’

Now imagine this for a moment. It’s pitch dark, you have no idea where you are other than that it is a few thousand feet in the air, and the pitch of the engines drops unexpectedly. Do you think, ‘Oh, I expect the on board software is feathering the props before initiating the final approach sequence’? I suspect a more likely reaction is: ‘I’m going to die.’ This is why I recommend the company thinks seriously about installing some in-flight information systems or, failing that, considers changing the upholstery to brown.

But as we talked some more, we came up with a better idea. If the onboard software can keep everything within safe limits, why not let the passengers pilot the drone themselves? Or at least give them the happy illusion that they are in control?

Those of you who remember the 1970s may recall that before the advent of child seats, mandatory safety belts and other namby-pamby legislation, you could buy toy steering wheels to fix to the back of the driver’s seat in your car.

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